Sunday, June 08, 2008

Tinkering our way to sustainability

When we think about the scope of the ecological challenges we face--peak oil, climate change, soil degradation, water depletion and species loss--we often think of responses big enough to match them. We might ponder large, national or international crash programs for the deployment of alternative energy; for the conservation of energy, water and habitat; and for the spread of organic agriculture and gardening. We might also think of a global agreement to slash greenhouse gas emissions deeply and quickly. But, the larger the responses one imagines, the more improbable their implementation seems. Governments are moving only slowly or sometimes not at all in the direction of sustainability though some corporate efforts are moving much faster.

In an age of gigantic government and corporate research projects, it is easy to lose sight of the fact that the majority of human technical and even social progress has been made through trial and error, in other words, through tinkering. Unfortunately, tinkering has been given a bad name by the dictionary. "To tinker" is variously defined as 1) "to busy oneself with a thing without useful results," 2) "to work unskillfully or clumsily at anything," and 3) "to repair in an unskillful, clumsy, or makeshift way." But there is a more neutral definition as well: "To make unskilled or experimental efforts at repair."

It is tinkering of the last sort, some of it highly skilled actually, that was much on display at the International Conference on Peak Oil and Climate Change held recently in Grand Rapids, Michigan. A few examples will serve to illustrate:

  • An Internet-based system called Bright Neighbor designed by Portland, Oregon resident Randy White allows people living in a neighborhood, village or town to coordinate simple things such as ridesharing or tool lending and more complex tasks such as planting a community or individual garden.

  • A system of public transportation referred to as JPods seems to take its inspiration from both the gondola and the monorail and could create a cheap alternative to building light rail lines. In addition, JPods can be designed to run on solar power generated by panels mounted above the overhead track. JPods founder Bill James says he is close to lining up the financing for the first JPod system at the Mall of America in Bloomington, Minnesota.

  • Permaculture and urban gardening are already well-established practices. But the idea of turning every large suburban lawn into a permaculture garden and many of the empty spaces and backyards in cities into urban gardens is a task that has barely begun. It has the potential, however, to provide a huge increase in the world's food supply in ways that are healthy for people and soil and also easy on the climate since transportation needs are minimized.

  • Community currencies, which only circulate locally, offer an opportunity to keep money flowing within the community where it is earned. That benefits all who live there. Such a currency also offers a method of exchange the value of which is not determined by international currency traders, but by the hard work and ingenuity of community residents.

None of these ideas by themselves will create a sustainable society. But each can be tested and adapted to the locale where the testing takes place. Allowing everyone who wants to to become an experiment station speeds greatly the adoption of new practices and technologies. In this way, such tinkering may work better and faster than any grand government plan to spread sustainable practices and technology. The secret weapon, of course, is modern communications, especially the Internet. The success or failure of promising sustainability projects can be transmitted almost instantly across the world, and the details for implementing new practices can move just as fast.

It's likely the scale for most successful sustainability ideas will be no larger than that of the town or region. This explains why tinkering could be a more successful sustainability strategy than any centralized research. If thousands of minds toiling under a variety of conditions in many places are working on a problem, it just might get solved faster and more satisfactorily than if several hundred or thousand are working on it at a research institute or corporate research department away from where it will be implemented.

Still, it is hard to see how a problem such as global warming might be tackled without broad international efforts and regulation. The tinkerer might be able to come up with ways for making deep reductions in carbon emissions affordably. But, he or she won't have any market for those methods without government regulations forcing the curtailment of greenhouse gas emissions. Who is going to put up wind generators and solar panels at the rate necessary to displace fossil fuel plants unless the government makes it profitable and perhaps even mandatory to do so?

While we struggle to create a political climate more friendly to sustainability practices in the face of lethargic and often unresponsive political systems, it is the tinkerers who have stolen the march and are rapidly creating the needed platforms for social, economic, technical and even political progress. Let a thousand flowers bloom. One second thought, why not millions.

1 comment:

Ted Howard said...

Thanks Kurt
An interesting article...but stating that Permaculture is just about gardening is misleading. Permaculture as a design science for a low ecological footprint future, also covers the other topics here. Appropriate technology, appropriate transport, alternative currencies and community structures are included in the Permaculture Design Certificate (PDC) course curriculum.

Ted Howard
Nelson, New Zealand